Practice with the Zen Altar

altar-cropped-with-flowersThis week we’re talking about Zen forms and rituals and my mind has been drawn to the ancient and curious human construction of an altar. On opening day, it seemed the thing to do to offer up on the altar a dish of seeds, sake cup of water and a harvest knife with a handle made smooth of twenty years and an impeccably sharp edge – a touchstone to begin our season. And then there are the little altars, secular and religiously themed, in nooks and crannies in our homes filled with statues, earth offerings and pictures of loved ones. The beauty of this Zen practice in this country is in the zest of its living form made humble by ordinary lives, a method and ritual yet to be buried under the accretions of historical imperatives. I would like to look at the teaching of the altar in the temple and encourage a questioning relationship.

An altar is fundamentally an unhidden truth, a Buddha or bodhisattva in full view held in a suspension of ledges that both give and receive. The temple altar is what catches the eye when you enter while at the same time, being that which beholds you, a gaze with a clear view of the room. It is an orienting presence no matter where you are – entering, exiting, bowing, sitting, or offering. There is never a moment the altar is not still and present. Many a time over the years I have walked to the altar and been surprised by my sense of fear, and although it would be easy to say at this point that that fear was unfounded, I think of it as fear for good reason because we need to step beyond the threshold of what we hold certain. One of the reasons altars seem to historically become grander over time is to ensure a sense of awe in the uninitiated. But you don’t need giant sculptures to be awed. To be in the presence of our own truth is to lay bare the tepidness of our dreams, to know a kind of grace despite the limitations of this human view.

Before the altar, our human motion is to approach. To walk as we are and make offerings. Offerings to whom we ask in a non-theistic religion? This is a good question. I cannot tell you if there are beings who receive the scent of incense and come to our aid, but I can tell you that to live in light of an altar is a transformative act for the one who makes the approach. It might be useful to take time to consider where the altars are in your life. What happens for you as you walk towards or away from the altar? How do you stand before it or surreptitiously glance? Do you think it is only for special people in robes to mediate a connection? Are there old memories from past religious experiences good or bad? Do issues of worthiness appear? Can you be there as a question?

When the altar is no longer confined within the temple walls, but becomes the whole of the universe with nothing missing, we find a way to move in the world in right relationship. The whole of the path can be described through the activity of engaging an altar and the teachings of flowers and light. (Or you could say flowers and fire, the other side of burning.) Flowers are the unexpected gesture of plants in which something completely new is brought forth from a series of expansions and contractions of green growth. Fire and light are universal symbols of purification and illumination. Flower and light depend upon one another, the right and the left hand. There is much to say about this, but my intention is more about encouraging us to make a fresh relationship with this ancient form, to bring our questions there and allow something new and vital to touch our hearts as we walk this path together, straight between blooms and brightness.

In gassho,